To say she was ahead of her time would be an understatement. Ada Lovelace earned her place in history as the first computer programmer — a full century before today’s computers emerged.
She couldn’t have done it without mathematician, inventor and engineer Charles Babbage. Their collaboration started in the early 1830s, when Lovelace was just 17 and still known by her maiden name of Byron. She was the only legitimate child of poet Lord Byron.
Babbage had drawn up plans for an elaborate machine he called the Difference Engine — essentially, a giant mechanical calculator. In the middle of his work on it, the teenage Lovelace met Babbage at a party.
For Lovelace, it was mind-blowing to think that mathematicians could design a machine that crunched numbers on demand. She subsequently began a friendship and correspondence with Babbage that lasted for almost two decades.
In 1843, Lovelace published a paper of her own on Babbage’s Analytical Engine. Her work translated another scholar’s article from French to English, though she added appendices that were double the length of the original work. These appendices consisted of a table of mathematical entries, and they were meant to show how the computer might function.
The tables served as a building block for the mathematicians and inventors who later took the idea of a computer from paper to actuality. Yet others claimed she wasn’t their true author and that she didn’t deserve credit at all.
These detractors claimed Lovelace was merely a student of Babbage, and that her relationship with him was that of a mentor and student — rather than a meeting of minds. The criticism has prompted some to argue that Lovelace simply regurgitated pieces of Babbage’s earlier works.
Others have used her exclusion from academia against her. As a woman, Lovelace was barred from studying in higher education; she followed a traditional method of mathematics study that failed to include algebra as part of trigonometry. Lovelace did, however, pursue study into algebra and advanced calculus on her own terms. Augustus De Morgan, the famed mathematician and logician, personally tutored her.
It appears that Lovelace’s social status meant she knew all the right people, in all the right places. But for more than two centuries, one connection in particular has almost overshadowed her legacy as a computing pioneer.
The Poet’s Daughter
Lovelace was born on December 1815 to poet Lord George Gordon Bryon, the most famous poet in England at the time — and known just as well for his many affairs.
Lovelace’s parents separated within a month of her birth — a scandal that drove her father to leave England for France. Lovelace never met Lord Byron; he died in 1824 from a fever at the age of 36. Her mother, however, got along just fine without a husband.
Lady Annabella Bryon came from a wealthy family, whose patriarch was a member of Parliament. Because Lady Byron did not want her daughter to grow up to be a poet like Lord Byron, the family used their resources to instead hire tutors in math and science. Attending mathematics lectures and building lifelong friendships with scientists and scholars helped Lovelace gain valuable access to one-on-one instruction and mentoring in the field.
Her contributions to computing might have been even greater, had she not fallen ill with cancer before dying at the age of 36 in November 1852.
Many historians would later describe her writings as the first computer program, and Lovelace the first programmer. While she led a raucous life of gambling and scandal, it’s her work in “poetical science,” as she called it, that defines her legacy as one of the greatest scientists.
In the words of Babbage himself, Lovelace was an “enchantress who has thrown her magical spell around the most abstract of Sciences and has grasped it with a force which few masculine intellects. . . could have exerted over it.”
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